The Great Fast, also known as Great Lent, is just around the corner. During this time, many Orthodox will begin eating a vegan diet. Many of us will also make an effort to say a few more prayers each day and eliminate some distractions such as social media, television, and internet usage in order to create more time for prayer and spiritual reading.
These things of themselves do not save us. Rather, they are the method which we use to open ourselves to the grace of the Holy Spirit. Those who are taking their spiritual struggle seriously during the Great Fast will likely find that the amount of demonic warfare increases. This manifests itself in different ways: new distractions when we pull away from old ones, a barrage of thoughts that come during prayer and spiritual reading, and other temptations that wish to test our resolve.
Many of us wonder: why do I have to face these spiritual struggles? Wouldn’t it be so much better if God could just wave a magical wand over us and make temptations go away? Why do we have trials?
In answer to those questions, I will post the insights and stories of a God-bearing elder whose own elder was St Joseph the Hesychast. He is from Mt Athos and currently is the elder of a monastery in Arizona. His name is Elder Ephraim and this is from his book The Art of Salvation.
On the one hand, we must resist evil fantasies and struggle to obliterate them before they give birth to unclean thoughts. On the other hand, through fasting (in accordance to our strength) and abstinence, with our prostrations and prayer rule, with our toil and effort during the day at work and during the night with vigil, we demonstrate our disposition to God: we show Him that we desire to be cleansed, to be purified, and to become holy.
Not that these attempts in themselves will result in holiness; rather, through them we collaborate with God in the process of our purification. “We are God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:9). We work together with God to purify our heart.
[Elder Joseph the Hesychast] would ask me, “My child, do you know what I do?”
“What do you do, my father?”
“I sit down and take inventory each day.”
“What type of inventory?”
“I sit and examine myself; I look at my shortcomings. What do I give into? What passion has a hold on me? My conscience tells me. The compass indicates, ‘you are weak here.’ And so, I make the resolution to fight against this passion the following day. Another day it will point to something else. I will battle that passion as well. In this manner, as I fight the various passions, I see a gradual improvement. Our forefathers used to say, ‘Work during your youth, so you can have something in your old age.’”
“What does this mean, Geronda?”
“This is what it means my child: now while you are young, fight against the passions; fight against your evil thoughts; fight against the imagination; struggle to fulfill your obedience; exert yourself with things you find difficult; sweat and pray during the night. All these labors and struggles are ‘work’; they constitute work years. Later, when the body grows weak and no longer has the strength to take up arms, when you are old and have worked during the years that God has allotted for you, then He will give you a pension. Depending on your skill and position, you will receive an analogous pension. What is this pension? It is the grace of God.
“If you were to ask me now, for example, I will respond, ‘Within me, my child, I feel Paradise. The Prayer runs like clockwork; grace abounds. I do not sense a single passion active within me. There is not a trace of any passion; I do not experience any warfare; I do not have any evil thoughts; I do not sense any passionate uprising. All these are not recent accomplishments; they are the fruits of my labors from my youth. That is when everything took place. Now the just reward has come.”
A younger monk was experiencing demonic warfare and he begged, “My God, please deliver me from this battle.” God listened to his prayer and freed him. At some point he visited a renowned and experience elder who had been through a lot, a true “sea dog,” as we say. “Geronda,” he announced happily, “I have found rest from the passions.”
“What did you say?”
“I have found rest. I am not battled by anything.”
The elder then took a good look at him. He stared at him intently and remarked, “You found rest so quickly? You accepted a reduced pension? Big mistake! You asked God on your own for this rest to be given to you. Now go to the fathers and ask them to pray for you, to beg God to resend the passions to you, so you can fight, ascend spiritually, and receive a full pension one day – not a premature pension!”
Do you understand what this father is trying to tell us? It is not to our advantage to find rest so early. While we are still in our youth, we need to be exposed to wars and the passions, so we can strike them. When they persist, we must also fight back. St Isaac the Syrian says that God intentionally does not fulfill our prayer when we ask to be delivered from various passions because as we fight back and invoke the name of God, our mind, mouth, and heart are sanctified by the name of Christ. When you are at war, you are forced to pray: “Help me, my Christ. Help me, my Panagia.” This name that you call upon will bring you holiness.
A certain brother was experiencing torturous carnal warfare. On account of the mental onslaught, he would pace around outside continuously and cry out, “Lord Jesus Christ…Lord Jesus Christ!” His elder, who was a heroic and experience warrior asked him, “My child, I see that you are having difficulty. Do you want me to pray for you, so the warfare comes to an end?”
“No, Geronda. Please do not pray for me. Let me remain like this, because I am receiving enormous benefit.”
“May God bless you, my child. You have found the way! This is the path to God. This is what I wanted to hear from you. If you had replied, ‘Yes, Geronda, pray for me so the war ends,’ you would have ceased weaving your crown. The crown must be fully adorned with a full range of flowers: carnations, roses, and others. Don’t ever think that everything is complete with a few small flowers. Anyone who thinks so is a coward.”
With these thoughts I try to keep in mind that I am young in this struggle against the passions. God is sending these to me for my salvation. He never sends us what is not necessary for our benefit and the benefit of our brothers and sisters. When we fall, we must rise back up; God knows we will fall. But let us never give up and let us run the race of the Great Fast and our entire lives with joy and perseverance!